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Milwaukee learned its water lesson,
but many other cities haven't


September 2, 1996
Web posted at: 9:30 p.m. EDT

Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series on water quality in the United States.

From Correspondent Dan Rutz

MILWAUKEE (CNN) -- Until 1993, most Americans took the cleanliness of public drinking water for granted.

The United States has a reputation for high standards in its water systems; it wasn't until a parasite slipped through the cracks in Milwaukee and killed more than 100 people that water systems managers started to take a closer look at how they monitored their product.

Even so, today, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that more than 50 million Americans are still drinking from substandard water systems.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find that as many as half the water utilities in the country sometimes fail to remove the same microbe that caused half the people in Milwaukee to get sick three years ago.

That parasite, cryptosporidium, made 400,000 people sick and killed more than 100. Since then, expensive overhauls have begun at the aging water treatment plants of Milwaukee.

Water Quality

"Our in-house standards are ten times more stringent than the standards that the federal government demands of us," said Carrie Lewis of the Milwaukee Water Works. "So we know we can do better than we have to, and that's our objective."

Making water safe enough to drink is getting tougher. More people, more development and new diseases affect the quality and safety of tap water. Nowhere in the industrialized world has that message hit home harder than in Milwaukee, all thanks to cryptosporidium.

Milwaukee resident Gary Wells has AIDS, and although he didn't get sick in the 1993 outbreak, he says he lost more than one friend to the bacterium.

"I used to drink this," he said, gesturing towards his sink, "because I thought I could trust that it was OK. But obviously I was wrong."

safe water

The CDC says boiling water for a minute, running it through a fine filter or using bottled water should protect those with impaired immune systems from cryptosporidiosis.

People with impaired immune systems include people with AIDS, and those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

Most of the time the CDC says these precautions are probably unnecessary. But, choosing to be safe rather than sorry, the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin distributes bottled water to its needy clients.

Since the Milwaukee outbreak, precautionary boil-water orders are becoming more common across the country. It even happened in Washington, D.C. this summer.

The aging of the population, and the increase in immune diseases like AIDS, increases the public health risk of waterborne infections.

Before Milwaukee, sporadic outbreaks might never have drawn any attention.


"We've been sort of spoiled by our own success and become complacent, and I think what happened in Milwaukee was really a product of that complacency," said Dr. Robert Morris of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The CDC estimates that each year, infectious drinking water sickens a million Americans and kills a thousand. But most cases are isolated.

In Milwaukee, it took a massive outbreak and public outrage to bring about overdue improvements and safeguards.

And as the debate for clean water drags on elsewhere in the country, some wonder how many cities will also learn their lessons the hard way.


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